'It has taken me my whole life to find him. Now I don't know what I'm going to do without him'

The Relatives
Click to follow
The Independent US
When Susan Bishop called out from the living room of her house on Wednesday evening for her daughter, Rachel Uchitel, to see if she was all right, she got no answer. She found her upstairs, on her knees in the wardrobe of her bedroom, sobbing into the suits of her fiancé, missing since Tuesday.

When Susan Bishop called out from the living room of her house on Wednesday evening for her daughter, Rachel Uchitel, to see if she was all right, she got no answer. She found her upstairs, on her knees in the wardrobe of her bedroom, sobbing into the suits of her fiancé, missing since Tuesday.

During the day, Ms Uchitel gets outdoors. The fresh air helps. She finds herself returning two or three times a day to Kinko's, a copying shop on 34th Street. She almost smiles through her tears talking about Kinko's. "They have been so nice. They give me these for free, as many as I want."

She points to the flyers she has been giving out to anyone who will take them for the past 48 hours all around Manhattan. Flyers like hers have become a familiar sight to all of us now. They read almost like lonely hearts advertisements. I have seen them taped to telephone boxes and lighting poles. They always have a large photograph of a person, their vital statistics and often a tear-off stub with a phone number.

But this is about death, or presumed death, not romance. Staring out from these pathetic sheets of white paper are the faces of people who were working in New York's twin towers when they were struck by two hijacked jetliners on Tuesday morning. Those who carry them, like Rachel Uchitel, do so as they cling on to last fragments of hope that maybe, just maybe, they are alive and someone has seen them.

On her flyer, she has two pictures of her fiancé. He is James Andy O'Grady but he was known as Andy. One shows him alone, a muscular, confident-looking man with fair hair. He was 32 years old and worked for a boutique brokerage house on the 104th floor of the south tower at the World Trade Centre. Another has him smiling proudly with his arm around Rachel. The couple returned from holiday in Greece on Sunday night, just 36 hours before the tragedy, and had got engaged just before leaving.

Yesterday morning, Rachel, 26, went with her mother to the Bellevue Hospital on First Avenue and 25th in Manhattan. Many of the survivors of Tuesday's tragedy were taken to these facilities. But its entrance has become an unofficial gathering place for relatives and friends of those who are still missing from the blasts. They come to check on lists of names of people who have been treated in all the New York area hospitals, just in case the person they are looking for has been added overnight.

They come, too, to find each other and share some of their pain, which does not get better but gets worse as the news from the rescue site becomes less hopeful. They come to Bellevue also to add their flyer to a fast-growing collection on what has been called the "Prayer Wall". The wall runs down the length of an awning that starts at the street and goes to the doors of the hospital's reception.

When they are not here, these people wander the streets, offering the flyers almost randomly. We are perhaps two miles north of where the towers used to stand and the city, even here, is struggling to get back to some sort of normality. But it is not normal, when there are thousands of people like Rachel Uchitel walking in a daze, ignorant of the fate of their loved ones. This is what happens at wartime, when the enemy bombs the city you are living in.

They come to places like Bellevue also, frankly, to talk to journalists. We can help put the word out about these loved ones, especially if we work for television. A blue van for the local ABC network affiliate is parked outside the Bellevue and its bonnet has now been transformed into a second prayer wall, with perhaps 30 different flyers taped onto it.

There is John Katsimatides, a broad-chested, young man who is shirtless in his picture. And Jack Aron, holding a small dog. Bruce Eagleson is pictured with a flute of champagne in his hand, with a big smile, celebrating something. Isaias Rivera is there too, holding two babies, one in each arm. All have additional personal information on them. Mr Rivera had brown hair and brown eyes. "He is wearing a gold rope chain on his neck and a rectangle charm that says, 'Jesus our Lord'," the flyer says.

Often in tragedies like this, those in the deepest pain talk to journalists because that too can help. None of us are counsellors or grief therapists and the responsibility is a little frightening but we are an audience. Moreover, we are a sort of neutral audience, removed from those in pain at all other times, even though, professionally, we are using them. But reporters need not always feel guilt about that. Talking to us – articulating perhaps for the first time their worst fears –may be important for these people.

Ms Uchitel, tanned from her holiday in Santorini and Mykonos, is initially calm as she explains her situation to us but soon she is weeping very hard, her mother, watching from the side. Some of us weep with her. She had just got to her own work, with the Bloomberg Television news company in midtown, when she got a mobile phone call from Andy. He and his colleagues in the south tower had just seen the first plane strike the north tower and couldn't believe their eyes.

"He said, 'Rachel, I just watched some people getting pushed or jumping out of number one building.' I asked him if he was OK, and he said he was fine. He was fine. They were not being evacuated. They had no idea that this was a terrorist thing at that point." Rachel then allowed her professional instincts to take over and asked Andy to stand by for someone from Bloomberg to contact him for an eyewitness account of what he was seeing. She then hung up. The second plane struck two minutes later. Not long after that, the south tower, the one Andy was in, toppled over and collapsed.

"I never got a chance to say goodbye. I didn't kiss him goodbye at home because I had my lipstick on. This was my fiancé. I planned my whole life with this person. It has taken me my whole life to find him and I don't know what I am going to do without him". The sadness of it all is overwhelming. She had just got engaged. That is her awful story. And there are so, so many others.

John Ashton is at Bellevue, too. His son, Thomas Ashton, worked for an electrical engineering contractor that had sent him to do a job at the World Trade Centre. Tuesday was just the second day he had worked there and the job was on the 95th floor of the north tower. Tommy lived with his parents in Woodside, Queens, and left for work at 6.30am. His father works in Queens, for the city, and has a view from his office of where the twin towers stood. When he saw the smoke rising from them, he called his son on his mobile phone and paged him but he never replied.

Yesterday, 48 hours after the attack, Mr Ashton was still periodically paging Tommy, "just in case someone hears the pager." Because he still can't accept his son has gone, Mr Ashton is deliberate when talking to me to make sure we talk about his son in the present tense. "We are still keeping our hopes up," he explains. "We have seen on the news that some of the rescuers may have heard voices and that there may still be people alive in there. We hope that Tommy will be one of them".

Mr Ashton went earlier in the day to the New York Armoury, about three blocks from the Bellevue, where the city opened an official reception centre yesterday for friends and relatives still searching for news of loved ones.

Mayor Rudolph Giuliani said yesterday that 4,763 people are reported missing. It is in the armoury that the kin, lovers and friends will, one day soon, be told of these people's fate.

For now, however, Mr Ashton was simply asked to fill out seven pages of forms with information about his missing son. And he was assigned an identification number. At some point, Mr Ashton will be processed and he will hear it officially from someone – his son was one of those killed on Tuesday's in the worst attack ever on American soil. But that has not happened yet, and clearly he is not ready yet to hear it.

So he concentrates on the practical matters, like talking to us, talking to the television cameras and giving maximum exposure to his flyer. "Thomas J Ashton, 21-year-old caucasian male. He is wearing dark T-shirt and jeans. He has a mole on his left cheek and a green tattoo of a shamrock with tribal symbols on his right upper chest". Then someone asks him how he is doing "in his heart". "All of our hearts have been broken," he says, in a voice filled with so much pain that it comes out almost as a squeak.

Another man bearing flyers turns out to be the son of Isaias Rivera, pictured with two babies on one of the flyers on the television van. He is Pedro Rivera and he is still hoping for some news of his father, who worked at the top of the north tower, maintaining the television masts that used to be on its roof for the CBS network. Mr Rivera was injured in the 1993 terrorist bombing of the centre and was transferred out of the complex but some years ago, CBS moved him back.

"It is hard because, he went though a lot in 1993. That time I found him in St Vincent's Hospital, so that is where I went on Tuesday. But he wasn't there," Pedro explains. "We found him before and we still hope we may find him again. But I don't know. They are coming up with less survivors".

Pedro is here, because he to believes he might track down some word of his father this way. His brother, Isaias Jnr, is down at the site of the tragedy. He volunteered to assist in the rescue as soon as he realised his father was missing and has been digging through the rubble, often with his bare hands, ever since. The son is digging for his father and has not stopped since Tuesday. "He is not going to leave until he finds him. He has not slept and I have not slept," Pedro explains, his body quivering with grief that by now must be only barely suppressed.

Comments